What's in a name?

Tel Aviv's nicknames over the last century evoke a rich tapestry of politics, culture and history.

Bahaus 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bahaus 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A city, Plato argued, "is what it is because our citizens are what they are." And a city's nicknames - because they are bestowed upon it by its citizens - speak volumes. From terms of endearment to exaggerated comparisons, they reflect various aspects of a city's identity as well as the perception its denizens wish to create. They shed light on the dreams of the metropolis and its mysterious evolutions. They use hyperbole, metaphor, humor and sarcasm to put a face on the urban landscape that may be humorous or derogatory, flattering or ridiculous. Although 100 may still be considered adolescence in city years, Tel Aviv's monikers over the last century evoke a rich tapestry of politics, culture and history. Tel Aviv Since its inception, names have been of critical importance to Tel Aviv. Originally founded in 1909 as simply "Ahuzat Bayit," which translates as the decidedly lackluster title "housing property," the name Tel Aviv was not chosen until a year after the neighborhood's foundation. Theodor Herzl's utopian novel Altneuland (Old/New Land) inspired the name after Nachum Sokolov translated it into Hebrew as "Tel Aviv." Beyond the semantics, the translation referenced the biblical village of the same name that was settled by exiled Jews in Mesopotamia. It also pointed to the connection between the ancient land and its new foundations. Tel Aviv literally means "Spring Hill," but in Hebrew, "tel" refers to both a naturally occurring hill and to a hill of archaeological remains of ancient settlements. Thus, it is at once a nod to Herzl's utopian vision of the state of Israel and a reference to the Babylonian exile. The City of Gazoz, Tel Hanut, Tel Sodom and Sin City The forefathers of Tel Aviv had no intention of building a town with a commercial center. The original premise was to construct a neighborhood that would provide a safe haven for Jews living and working in neighboring Jaffa. In fact, it took several years and numerous heated debates before the first kiosk was granted approval. Even after its authorization, the only permissible item the kiosk could sell was cold gazoz, soda water. In accordance with halacha, it was never open on Saturdays (it wasn't until 1989, in fact, that the first non-stop kiosk was opened in the city). Ironically, by the 1920s, kiosks had become such a prevalent part of the city's landscape that Tel Aviv was disapprovingly dubbed the city of "gazoz and grocery stores." To the socialist Zionists who advocated collective living and productive work, the rapid expansion of Tel Aviv and its ensuing commercial growth was a travesty. Their dismay led to the unfavorable nickname of "Tel Hanut," the "city of shops." It was not the only negative nickname given to the metropolis during this period. In Tel Aviv, The Mythography of a City, Maoz Azaryahu writes: "In 1934, Tel Aviv was condemned as the hub of real estate speculation and called 'Tel Sodom.'" In a more recent critical comparison to Las Vegas, it has also been referred to as "Sin City." As they stood on the beach for what would later be called the "seashell lottery" after the gray and white seashells used to match names with plots of land, the 60 founding families could not have imagined the scope and depth that their dream would eventually realize. Their original plans to build a new Jewish neighborhood that would be separate from Jaffa were undoubtedly anchored in Zionism. In fact, the origins of Tel Aviv's title as "the First Hebrew City" date back to a prospectus that Akiva Arieh Weiss wrote in 1906, in which he explicitly referred to plans to build the First Hebrew City in order to attract buyers for the land. His vision included a metropolis with only a Hebrew population and language "where purity and cleanliness will reign, and [where] we will not follow the ways of the gentile nations." Weiss's text hijacked the ideas put forth several years earlier in a 1904 proposal made by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda to found a Hebrew neighborhood in Jerusalem in honor of Theodor Herzl, where "residents will talk Hebrew... in its streets and public square only Hebrew will be heard and in its shops only Hebrew will be spoken." At the time when Tel Aviv was still nothing but mounds of sand dotted with a few vineyards and orchards, the ambitious scope of this title was nothing short of pretentious. But by the 1920s it was already in widespread use as a direct reference to Tel Aviv. In the 1930s, the municipality even used it in an advertisement to foreign tourists, calling itself "the First Hebrew City" and "the city of wonders that arose on desert sands." By the 1950s, after the War of Independence and Tel Aviv's official annexation of Jaffa in 1950, this nickname no longer carried the weight of an unfulfilled dream. As the city grew, the title of "The First Hebrew City" began to reflect a sentimental nostalgia that it maintains to this day. Mayor Ron Huldai recently opened his speech about the centennial birthday with the words, "Who would have believed 100 years ago that we would be standing here today in the First Hebrew City speaking Hebrew and understanding one another?" The Big Orange Typical of Israeli hutzpa, numerous names likening Tel Aviv to New York have cropped up throughout Tel Aviv's history. There's "The Little Apple," "The Tiny Apple" (for Rehov Shenkin's trendy counter-cultural district), "Israel's Soho," and perhaps the most famous, "The Big Orange," which dates back to the late 1980s. The nickname, a play on the "Big Apple," refers to the world-famous Jaffa oranges that were exported to Europe and named for the nearby port long before Tel Aviv was even a dream. Ironically, many of these orange orchards were uprooted in order to make room for the new metropolis. Nevertheless, the mythological connection persisted long after the orchards were gone. Nachum Gutman's 1958 novel chronicling early life in "Little Tel Aviv" (the area where the first neighborhoods were built, including Neveh Tzedek and Rothschild Boulevard, Allenby and Herzl Streets) was entitled: The Trail of Orange Peels: Adventures from Tel Aviv's Beginning. In a homage, the municipality later called the walking routes in Tel Aviv "Orange Trails." In recent years, the nickname has spurred criticism. Journalist Thomas O'Dwyer called it a pathetic expression of provincial vanity in an article about Linda Grant's novel, When I lived in Modern Times. Set in Tel Aviv in 1946, she received the Orange Prize for fiction for it in 2000, setting off a media heyday full of Big Orange musings and jokes. In 1992, Neil Tilbury, a Lonely Planet guide writer, called Tel Aviv's comparison to New York with the "Big Orange" moniker "unfortunate." "The impact of the diverse backgrounds of its inhabitants, with so many countries represented in a population of just over a third of a million, is lessened by the fact that they are virtually all Jewish, as opposed to the Big Apple's melting pot," he writes. For most, however, the nickname reflects an affectionate and playful comparison. Tel Aviv residents realize that while there are similarities and comparisons to be made, a city of 400,000 could never realistically be the same as New York. The Garden City In the 1920s, Tel Aviv's population exploded. Due to riots and violent clashes in neighboring Jaffa, it went from 2,000 residents in 1920 to 34,000 by 1925. In order to meet the breakneck demand for new housing, the progressive idea of town planning was initiated by Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor. Still under the British Mandate of Palestine, the Scottish biologist Patrick Geddes was commissioned to design the space because he was known as an innovative thinker in this new field. Thanks to Geddes's careful consideration of human needs in an urban environment, residential compounds in the city were built around small gardens to provide both a gathering spot for socialization and healthy, decorative fruit-bearing trees. His plan emphasized communal parks, sprawling public gardens, and wide tree-lined boulevards that remain a major characteristic of Tel Aviv to this day. Thus the moniker "Garden City" was born. Despite the abundance of greenery in the metropolis, however, it would be a stretch to say that the city meets international eco-friendly standards - even if the current municipal administration is trying to promote new biking lanes and brand itself as the "Green City." They are even opening a new walking tour along the Yarkon River in honor of the centennial called the "Green Route." Silicon Wadi Hi-tech in Israel began in the 1960s but it wasn't until the late 1990s that its image as an international center for innovative start-ups began to really take off. The nickname "Silicon Wadi" - a humorous reference to California's Silicon Valley - reflects Tel Aviv's desire to be on par with the most important high-tech center in the world. The first international recognition of "Silicon Wadi" came in 2000 when Wired magazine ranked it second only to the original Silicon Valley. According to some, the flourishing field of hi-tech was due to several important factors: the shift from hardware to software in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Oslo Accords in 1993, the huge wave of immigration from the FSU between 1989 and 1999, and finally, the wild success of ICQ, the idea for which was born over a ping-pong match between four young unemployed software engineers. One of these was Arik Vardi, son of prominent venture capitalist Yossi Vardi. The idea for instant messaging (IM) came to them in 1996. The concept of allowing users to chat online in real time - which also heralded the viral marketing tactics so ubiquitous today - was an instant success. Two years later, AOL purchased ICQ for $287 million. This boom spread an electrifying current through Israel that ignited the imaginations of every computer geek and brought foreign investors to what was already being hailed at home as "Silicon Wadi." The White City Home to the largest number of Bauhaus and International Style buildings in the world, Tel Aviv was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. In order to mark this honor, the municipality created the nickname of "White City." The architectural style that originated in the 1930s had a profound and lasting influence on the residential complexes that can still be seen today, including the characteristic use of pilotis (columns), open balconies, flat rooftops and cube-like buildings. Founded to meet the growing demand for inexpensive and fast housing due to rising anti-Semitism abroad that was flooding the city with new residents, more than 4,500 International Style (synonymous with Bauhaus in Tel Aviv) buildings were designed and built by 60 architects from both Mandate Palestine and Europe who had studied in the Bauhaus School. Many of these apartments were purchased through a "key money" system that allowed immigrants to deposit small amounts of money up front and then make low monthly rent payments for the rest of their lives - a situation that eventually led to the rampant decline and destruction of countless old buildings. These minimalist, communal residential compounds emphasized functionality and a strong work ethic. At the time they were considered terribly distasteful to many Europeans who had come in search of a beautiful, modern city and more than one writer has remarked upon the misnomer of "White City" in a city that today is largely gray. The predominant white and pastel building materials used at the time formed the basis for the nickname, "The White City." These light shades reflected a desire to oppose the dark, dreary colors that dominated the buildings of the port city Jaffa next door. The Nonstop City Since its earliest days, Tel Aviv has been known as the capital of entertainment and nightlife - from the first cinemas and theaters in the 1920s to the Cameri Theater's groundbreaking foundation in the mid-1940s and Habima's permanent settlement in the city in 1931. Today, the city hosts 70 different festivals and last year alone 1,300,000 theater tickets were sold. In 1994, just days after Tel Aviv suffered one of its worst terror attacks, which killed 22 people, then-mayor Shlomo Lahat dedicated the new $50 million, 1,500-seat performing arts center with the words, "culture for us is not a luxury. It is a life-or-death matter." Under Lahat's watch, another of Tel Aviv's most enduring and appropriate nicknames emerged: "Nonstop City." Created in 1989 by the municipality for the city's 80th birthday, it was intended to encourage Israelis to visit. Although Tel Aviv's reputation as a city that lives by night dates back to the 1930s, it wasn't until the late 1980s that the city started to allow and even encourage businesses to stay open around the clock - from pubs and bars to restaurants and shops. For historian Maoz Azaryahu, it marked the end of an era. "Chronologically, the First Hebrew City and the Nonstop City represent two successive stages in the history of the mythic city; the Zionist phase, identified with the era of the First Hebrew City, and the post-Zionist phase, identified with the Nonstop City." The Pink City Tel Aviv is known for its tolerant and secular pluralism that welcomes everyone - from Filipino foreign workers to haredim and tattoo-sporting hippies to secular conservatives. Since the 1960s - when gay icon and actor Danny Lachman initiated an annual celebration and a few stray underground gay bars opened - Tel Aviv has been a haven for the gay community. Yet, it wasn't until 1998 that the city hosted its first annual gay pride parade. That same year Dana International, a transsexual pop star, won the Eurovision Song Competition for Israel. In 2005, an article on Ynet Travel by Danny Sadeh pointed out that Tel Aviv would soon be known not just as the "White City" but as the "Pink City." Judging by the online responses, the new moniker has mixed reviews. But while not everyone is in favor of Tel Aviv's new nickname, there is no denying its existence. Numerous popular films and novels explore the challenges of gay life in the city, including Eytan Fox's The Bubble (2006), Yair Hochner's Antarctica (2008) and Evan Fallenberg's award-winning debut novel, Light Fell (2008). Since the 1990s, the city has also been a growing tourism hub for international gays and the municipality strongly supports the local community. In honor of Tel Aviv's 10th annual Gay Pride Parade, the Middle East's first municipally-sponsored Center for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community (LGBT) was inaugurated. "This house expresses Tel Aviv's spirit of pluralism and the desire to respect every minority," Mayor Ron Huldai said at the dedication ceremony. This October, the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association will hold its annual symposium in Tel Aviv for the first time and representatives from Israel's gay and lesbian community recently attended the international tourism fair in Berlin, one of the largest of its kind in the world. "Tel Aviv is one of the gayest cities I know of," singer Ivry Leeder told Travel and Leisure last year. Etai Pinkas, a leader in the gay community and the youngest city councilman in Tel Aviv, would probably agree. "Tel Aviv has a critical role in supporting the homosexual and lesbian communities," he said. "The gay community would not be where it is without Tel Aviv." Like it or not, the "Pink City" is here to stay.